Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle seeking ‘way forward’ for police after protests, use of tear gas

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle seeking ‘way forward’ for police after protests, use of tear gas
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Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, in mask, sits among protesters on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse during a George Floyd protest on June 1, 2020.

Huntsville police will remain under public scrutiny in weeks to come following protest rallies in which tear gas was used to disperse participants speaking out against police brutality.

Mayor Tommy Battle on Thursday called for a work session of the city council next month to discuss proposed changes to the department from community groups and chart "the way forward for the police."

The city council also approved a resolution to maximize independence for the city’s police citizens advisory council as it reviews police actions with the focus on the June 1 and June 3 protests when the tear gas was deployed.

The work session will take place July 29 at 5 p.m. at city council chambers. By nature, governing bodies do not take action at work sessions – which are intended as public discussions among council members concerning a specific issue.

The only other item on the work session agenda, city leaders said, will be a report on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Battle pointed to recommendations submitted by the NAACP, the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform as well as two civic organizations: 100 Black Men and 100 Black women.

"We will be seeing how that can fold in for a better police force," Battle said at Thursday's council meeting. "We're all here for one thing – we're here for a better Huntsville, a better police force, a better group. We will be working toward that goal."

The city council heard from about 40 citizens at the meeting, many calling for police Chief Mark McMurray to be replaced. Citizens cited aspects of McMurray's lengthy presentation to the city council last week in defending actions police took to break up the protests.

Councilwoman Frances Akridge took issue with explanations provided by McMurray – first at a press conference on June 4, the day after a second protest ended in tear gas, as well as last week’s briefing to the council.

"At the press conference on June 4, the justification centered on proof of out-of-town agitators coming here to incite people to riot and having the young people do their bidding," Akridge said. "The debriefing on June 18, the focus was on online anarchist sympathizers getting people organized in military tactics to do their bidding on the ground.

"In neither case did the chief of police offer what might have been done differently. Yet there were other options. They were rejected internally."

Council President Devyn Keith also apologized for McMurray's use of the word "oriental" during his presentation last week. A city official told that McMurray misspoke in reading notes as he addressed the council.

"I ask for nothing but grace," Keith said of McMurray. "I don't believe it was said in a malicious sense. But you don't have to be intentional to hurt somebody."

Community feelings remain raw weeks after the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Some of the same speakers at the council meeting on Thursday – providing photos of injuries incurred from rubber bullets fired into the crowd by law enforcement – also addressed the Madison County Commission at its meeting on Wednesday.

Sheriff Kevin Turner told the commission that his department would present an after-action report, though no format or date for that presentation was discussed publicly.

McMurray said that Huntsville police did not use rubber bullets at the protests but he could not speak for other law enforcement agencies at the protests. Turner declined an interview request Wednesday by

"Your comments are well noted," Huntsville councilman Bill Kling said following the dozens of speakers Thursday. "There are six elected officials who are up here listening and hopefully you will see some things that make this community a little bit better."

The council also unanimously adopted Kling’s resolution empowering the citizens advisory council in its review of police actions. The citizens advisory council will have access to “any resources” at Huntsville police. The advisory council will remain independent of influence from the City Council, the mayor’s office and police department — though the city ordinance creating the advisory council calls for members to be appointed by the council, mayor or police chief.

The city council also opted not to put a deadline on the citizens advisory council to submit its report, citing the fact that all advisory council members are volunteers. The report will be made to the city council in open session.

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